It was too good to be true. A fantastic three days in Zurich and Lausanne when even the weather gods had relented and had given me the much coveted sun. I was priding myself as one of those lucky ones who could even take on the weather. All of this was before I encountered Air Canada.
When the Air Canada flight from Toronto, AC 878, settled in at Gate E 47 of the Zurich Airport at 9.00 am on the 8th of November, all had seemed well. The flight was on time and the take off for Delhi at 10.00 was just a formality. However, the
drama or, more appropriately, the nightmare was yet to unfold. At 9.30, came the first announcement. The flight was delayed indefinitely as there was a technical problem. Transit passengers from Toronto were so
tired that they hardly reacted to the announcement. Ashok Dhaul from Victoria for example was busy telling me how beautiful his city was and how much he was looking forward to going back to Amritsar after 11 long years.
When the indefinite delay announcement was repeated at 10.30 and we were told we would only have further information at 11.00, the unease had started. Some were soon seen making calls to people back home asking them to hold off from making airport pick up plans. At 11.00, it was announced that it was only a matter of 15 minutes. Engineers had identified the problem and there was optimism in the air. We were, however, told that if they failed it will be a two-three hour delay and we will be given meal vouchers. For once no one wanted to have a meal! Soon, the engineers failed and meal vouchers seemed our fate for the day when the 2-3 hour delay was extended to 7-8 hours with a further update promised at 4.00 pm.
Suddenly, all Air Canada staff had disappeared. The crew were packed off to their hotel for they had to sleep to work at night. This was a union issue and no one would take a chance. So what if the 225 passengers were left to languish! With not a single staff member around, the old and the physically handicapped had a nightmare. There weren't any wheel chairs around and a couple urinated in their pants at the terminal building, unable to go to the washrooms. One of them in fact said, "Beta, Indian hone ka price chuka rahe hain hum." While the adults were given vouchers, kids were not. When co-passenger Divjot More went to ask for a voucher for her baby, she was told off, "The baby doesn't need food", was the clip. In Canada the government provides food for a dog per household. May be the Air Canada staff thought we, Indians, were worse off. And when Divjot called her husband at home in Toronto to report her plight, she was told that an announcement had been made that all of us had been given hotel rooms for the day and were being looked after rather well.
The final diagnosis for the delay was a broken cockpit window. The solution—a spare window had to be flown in from Munich. With flights from Munich coming in by the hour, the part was expected to arrive at 3.00 pm. And this was confirmed by Airport staff at 4.00 when a further update was given. Apparently the part was being fitted and soon we were to be told the final departure time. When no further announcement came by 5.30 pm, a gang of passengers, irritated, frustrated and hungry, went back to the airport authorities in disgust. With no Air Canada staff around, this was the only thing possible. We, to our dismay, were told that the part hadn't yet arrived and was in fact due at 6.00 local time. No reason was given. Nor was any further departure time given. Finally, we were told that even if the part had in fact arrived during the day the flight could only take off at night for the crew had to be given their 9-10 hours of rest.
At 6.00 pm in the evening, the passengers had almost resigned to their fate and had begun trooping back to the departure gate, waiting expectantly for a further update. However, on their way through security they were told that duty free items bought in Toronto would not be allowed in. There's a new regulation in place which stipulates that all duty free items are to be left on board and should not be brought along to the transit lounge. The passengers had not broken a rule. It was the flight supervisor, a T Fischer, who had personally supervised the distribution of these items when a delay of 10 hours was announced. And the total number of passengers with duty free items were no less than 40 and the total value of duty free items was no less than 4-5000 USD. When told that all of their items, which included wedding gifts and presents for relatives back home, were to be thrown into the garbage bin, passengers refused to board. And suddenly we could see what a satyagraha could do. Alongside we also got the security chief Franco, who after getting the full story was livid with Air Canada. At his insistence, a special security enclosure was opened for passengers of AC 878 and passengers finally were allowed to carry their stuff in.
The eventual departure for Delhi happened at 10.00 pm, exactly 12 hours after the scheduled departure time. The crew came in at 8.45 and the passengers, on seeing them, booed, hissed and clapped. At this, some of them waved at us in triumph. Why, still defies me. All of us, 225 passengers, signed a protest memo, which I have with me to be sent to Air Canada. But the agony and the pain this journey inflicted on most can hardly go away with an apology, given to us on board the jinxed AC 878.